One of the biggest problems associated with vegetarian-based diets is the impact on the body of substances called lectins. While you may not have heard specifically of lectins, you’re likely aware of them and their effects; if you’ve ever heard of gluten intolerance and celiac disease then you know about lectin disorders. You can think of lectins as defensive, protective molecules found in seeds and vegetables that are specifically designed by nature to create trouble in any biological organism that is silly enough to try to eat them.
Beans and legumes contain especially problematic lectins, which account for the notorious allergies and digestive problems associated with these kinds of foods. You can pretty much end up with any health challenge you can think of from these lectin substances, particularly skin diseases, mental health issues and immune or auto-immune illness.
Pretty much all seeds are going to have some lectin substances in them (beans and grains are of course seeds) as a protective mechanism. There are also substantial lectins in bananas, potatoes, mangos, cherries, guava and plums. Lectins are not digestible; they can protect a seed (grain or bean) from digestive juices when they are eaten. Remember, plants in nature, for the most part, do not want their seeds eaten. A seed that is eaten and then digested is a seed that will obviously not become a plant. This is one reason why seeds can have a medicinal quality (think grape seeds or apricot pits), and it’s why seeds can also be toxic.
Lectins also have anti-bacterial properties. In the same way that they can throw off human cells, they can also disrupt bacterial cell chemistry. Ironically, this anti- bacterial property of lectins can be exploited for medicinal and therapeutic benefit. Lectins from fruits and vegetables, for example, can actually play a beneficial role in protecting against e-coli. They also help speed up healing and recovery from bacterial induced urinary tract infections.
Here's one other little tidbit about lectins: Because these things are so basic and fundamental to plant and animal chemistry, there’s an important relationship between lectins and genetics. They’re produced by genes and are often the target of genetic research. Some early experiments indicate that lectins from GMO plants may have negative health effects. A scientist named Arpad Pusatzin, found that rats fed lectins from GMO potatoes suffered damage to their immune systems and digestive systems. While there’s some controversy around his finding, given the potentially damaging nature of certain lectin materials and their associations to cancer, degenerative disease and inflammation, it’s not a stretch to think that you could be creating a lectin Frankenstein monster using GMO technology.
How Lectins Work
So here’s the scoop on lectins and how they work: Cells are coated with a very thin layer of sugars (complex sugars, technically called polysaccharides). This coating, that scientists call the “glycocalyx”, which means the sugar-hood or the sugar coating, acts as a cell’s identification. Cells communicate with each other via these sugars. The main message that is communicated is “friend or foe”. All cells, especially cells of the defense system, are constantly scanning each other’s sugar calyx to determine whether a cell identifies as friend or foe. They are the cells ID documents.
It’s as if cells have one of those slightly crooked labels you see on people's shirts and jackets at classes and marketing meetings. All cells have their version of one of those “Hi I’m Ben” stickers people wear at networking events. Except it basically says: “Hello I’m Ben’s liver cell”, (or bone cell or immune cell).
These ID components or identification mechanisms, “Hi I’m Ben” stickers on cells are made up of a special class of sugars. The lectins that are found in plants have a special affinity for these identification markers. When a lectin hits one of these sugars it immediately distorts that calling card. What’s worse, lectins have a Velcro like effect that causes them to stick to the calling card. Because these lectin molecules have lots of little stick Velcro molecular arms, one piece of plant lectin can stick to a whole bunch of cells creating globs of suck together cells. Once these normal cells are glued together with lectins they become targets for the immune system and can initiate an immune response. It’s kind of like getting bubble gum in your hair; all the hairs become so stuck and tangled together you basically have to cut the hair out. Picture the sticky gooey clotted up hair and bubble gum mess and you can get an idea of what happens to susceptible cells when a plant lectin interacts with them.
There are countless lectin structures found in plants and animals. We can identify and classify red blood cells by their reactions to specific lectins. The reason your blood type is O or B or AB is because of lectin reactions to your sugar identification cards, the glycocalyx on specific red blood cells. Type O blood globs up, forms clots when it is reacted with a special type of lectin called type O lectin, type A blood globs when it reacts with type A lectin and blood type AB reacts with AB lectins. Interestingly, not all individuals are going to react the same way to specific lectins. The “Eat Right for Your Blood Type” phenomena that Dr. Peter Adamo writes about is based on the science of lectins; i.e. specific blood cell reactions that specific individuals have to specific lectins.
So, lectins from beans, grains and seeds act to make the body turn on itself. They change the identification of a cell so that it now triggers a defensive response, an auto-defensive or, more accurately, an autoimmune response. This especially happens in the digestive system. If you have celiac disease, lectins from wheat, e.g. gluten, will change the identity card of your intestinal cells, leading to an attack from the body’s own immune defense system. Sneaky darn wheat! If you have celiac disease, how does it feel to be outsmarted by a shaft of wheat, which is basically just a blade of grass. You’ve been outwitted by your lawn!, at least biologically. That’s because when all is said and done, lectin is nature’s way, or the plants way, of saying hands off. Grains are for growing seeds, not eating.
The earliest references to lectin was as an “agglutinin” (that’s science talk for something that causes the blood to clot). It comes from the same root as the word gluten, which is Latin for glue. “Agglutinare” means to join or adhere and “agglutinins” are chemicals that cause the blood to clot. Blood clotting is a major defensive response; it’s a big time sign, the iconic classic marker, the fingerprint, the signature of immune system activation. Animals with immune response activation are not going to be healthy in the long run and this makes lectins ideal weapons for plants. I love this whole idea of chemical warfare in the plant world, plants making birth control chemicals to sterilize their enemies or toxic chemicals to outright kill their enemies. Plants make things to punish the animals that would dare eat them. It’s like a Far Side cartoon, where the plants are a lot smarter than we think. There’s actually a lot of research literature that’s coming out in Plant Chemistry journals that lead one to believe that plants may, in fact, be more intelligent than we think!
One of the best ways to protect yourself from lectins is to use polysaccharides and nutritional sugars that are found in vegetables. Seaweed and cartilage from animals are especially good sources of these sugars. Remember lectins bind to these things on cells. When you ingest lots of these substances in food and supplements, lectins will be attracted to these substances and be less likely to attack your cells. It’s kind of like the way fighter planes will release decoys to misdirect heat seeking missiles. If a fighter pilot is attacked by these kinds of weapons, he can release a dummy hot device so the heat seeking missile will be attracted away from the fighter plane. When we eat these kinds of sugars, whether in foods or supplements, lectins that would ordinarily attack the sugars on the cell’s glycocalyx ID card, will be attracted to the sugars that we’re eating and spare our cells. Remember these are the sugars found in vegetables!
The ZRadical product from Youngevity is a wonderful source of these lectin attracting sugars, specifically something called fucose or fucoidan, and if you have any autoimmune issue or digestive health issue or even if you just wanted to boost your immune system and protect yourself from lectin damage you might want to think about using the stuff regularly.
Cancer cells have lectins on them too. This allows them, again in Velcro like fashion, to stick to other cancer cells and form colonies. This is how tumors spread. They basically stick to each other and to normal cells and to the matrix that cells sit in, the so called extra-cellular matrix. The website cancerquest.com calls it “setting up shop”. The fucoidan in the Z-radical, which can bind to the cancer cells lectins, prevents them from attaching to healthy cells or matrix in a potentially new organ or tissue. Again, the fucoidan acts like a dummy, fake or decoy cell membrane, taking on the cancer cells and preventing the formation of colonies and the metastasis.
The binding effect of the sugars in the Z-radical can also be helpful for folks dealing with chronic UTIs, or interstitial cystitis. This is the same mechanism that sugars from cranberries or straight mannose utilize to improve the bacterially produced burning and pain associated with these kinds of infections. Bacteria that cause UTIs use the same kind of adhering mechanism that cancer cells use when they’re colonizing. Except instead of sticking to each other, they use their lectins to stick to the cells that line the urinary tract. When you use the Z-Radical or mannose or cranberry juice sugars, what you’re doing is distracting the bacteria from the urinary tract cells, inducing them to attach to the fucoidan or mannose instead. The bacteria can then be flushed out of the urinary tract as you eliminate your fluids.